CPA Programs: Steering Business Your Way

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Forming strategic alliances with CPA firms helps Judy Thornell grow her firm's customer base. Thornell, president and CEO of Las Vegas-based Baytek, started focusing on these alliances in 2000, and now works with more than 300 accountants via the Sage Software Accountants Network. It's well worth the effort, according to Thornell.

"CPA programs build our brand, and awareness about our company has increased," she adds. It's not just about awareness. In 2004, this program added $250,000 in revenue, and this year Thornell anticipates it will grow the top line by another 20 percent.

The company, which employs 23 people, handles Sage's applications, including the MAS, Peachtree, and BusinessWorks accounting product lines.

Partner Insights

Of the 300 accountants Baytek works with, about one-third involved close relationships. It also has 65 members in the seven-year-old Baytek Partner Program, which consists primarily of CPA firms, but also includes IT organizations. There is no fee to join the program, and partners receive training and marketing collateral, and can participate in a newsletter program. Within the next year, Baytek plans to hold its first conference for its partners.

Baytek provides data conversion services, Web sessions, and multiple on-site training for CPA firms and their clients. Firms that don't sell technology products also refer prospects to Baytek.

Interest in such programs is growing, Thornell says.

"CPA firms are more accepting of these relationships than they were in the past. They're embracing technology more, and we're seeing more CPA firms drive these strategic relationships," says Thornell.

Resellers Take a D-I-Y Approach

While Sage Software has its Sage Accountants Network to pair reselling and accounting firms, Lisa Kianoff's organization has established its own Kianoff Alliance Partnership.

"The program helps give some structure to our relationship with CPA firms," adds Kianoff, president of Birmingham, Ala.-based L. Kianoff & Associates.

The firm, a Sage Software and Microsoft reseller, offers CPA Lunch and Learns, CPE credit, and discounts for CPAs and their clients. The Lunch and Learns, offered four times per year, each qualify for two hours of CPE credit, and attract about 20 attendees. Topics focus on educating CPAs so they can expand their services to their clients. "This type of relationship is not a bird of short flight. We have had to focus on CPAs for years and just over the last year we are starting to see the real payback," says Kianoff.

She suggests these tips:

Be invested in the local CPA community. Her firm is active in the Alabama state society and supports the community programs and fundraisers that Alabama CPAs focus on.

Be a resource for the CPAs. People know they can call Kianoff for information or ideas on technology and that they are always willing to help regardless if there is a business opportunity or not.

Stay in front of the CPAs. The firm participates in the Alabama Society of CPAs' annual conference, which it finds to be a great opportunity to renew relationships. Members of the firm are always available to speak at meetings for the many CPA-related groups in the state.

Be patient. It is a long-term investment.

Make sure you or someone in your firm is passionate about the CPA community. If not, then this may not be the place for you to invest.

For example, a little more than a year ago, the Englewood, Colo.-based firm of Bondi & Co., contacted Baytek because a client wanted to transfer all financial records to Peachtree.

"We have no experience with Peachtree, only with MAS 90 and QuickBooks," says Lori Bauer, a tax senior and the firm's head of accounting services. Bauer searched the Internet for Peachtree experts and found that Baytek had a staff member who had been a Peachtree trainer.

Bauer continues, "I was impressed with her credentials. We needed someone to step in and get the job done. And Baytek did just that,"

In addition, Bondi teamed up with Thornell's group to train staff members on a new version of MAS 90.

"Since we had success with Baytek assisting our clients, we had them come out for a day and half of training. Baytek is always responsive and knowledgeable, and I've recommended them several times to other departments in our firm," adds Bauer.

A key to developing successful relationships between reselling and accounting firms is that resellers, who often have CPAs on staff, must not appear to be competitors.

"We don't provide accounting services, and we have CPAs on staff, but we're not a threat," adds Thornell.

In fact, when working with end users Baytek always asks, "Does your CPA want to be involved with this project?"

"Most of our clients who are using Peachtree and MAS have a CPA firm, and we make sure the client contacts them when we come in. If we're doing a chart of accounts for a client, we want the CPA firm involved because they're going to be the ones working with the information," says Thornell.

While it can be difficult to measure the success of such programs, vendors think they work, judging from the number of new and enhanced programs that exist.

In the last two years, Microsoft and SAP introduced their offerings, while Open Systems and NetSuite are gearing up to attract more CPAs.

New Programs on the Block

Before Microsoft launched its low-cost Small Business Accounting software last fall, it conducted research to ascertain accountants' impact on product purchases.

"We did research, and found that more than 50 percent of small businesses have major business decisions influenced by their accountants," says Bob Lewis, Microsoft's senior marketing manager for accounting professionals.

Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft launched the Microsoft Professional Accountants' Network in August to support SBA. Since then, it has enlisted approximately 5,000 members, and is adding about 50 to 100 new members each day, Lewis says. The free program provides a variety of training, information, and one SBA license, along with access to the Microsoft Partner Channel Builder, managed newsgroups, technical support, access to the MPAN Web site, newsletters, events, and Webcasts.

Members can also pay $299 per year for an Action Pack subscription, which, in addition, gives them 10 SBA licenses and 10 licenses of Microsoft Small Business Edition for internal use, a range of desktop and server applications, several Microsoft Business Solutions applications, free installation support, and five free support incidents.

Felecia Dixson, partner at the Missouri-based CPA firm of Alfermann Gray & Co., says the lack of a membership fee is "the No. 1 reason accountants are joining."

But it's not the only one, she notes.

Vendor Offerings for CPAs

Intuit

QuickBooks ProAdvisor Program

Participants: 30,000

Cost: $449, initial member; $399, annual renewal

Intuit ProConnection

Participants: 70,000

Cost: Free

Microsoft Business Solutions

Microsoft Professional Accountants' Network

Participants: 5,000

Cost: Free

NetSuite

Referral Alliance Partner Program

Participants: 100

Cost: Free

Open Systems

Referral Partner Program

Cost: $495 annually

Sage Software

Sage Software Accountants Network

Participants: 13,000

Cost: From $399 to $499

SAP Business One

CPA Advisor Program

Participants: 200

Cost: Free

"There are several reasons to join: SBA is a good product that accountants can use," continues Dixson. "In fact, I gave a copy to a staff member who hadn't used it before to make sure it was as easy to use as I thought it was."

The firm has also subscribed to the Action Pack Subscription, which gave it software that Dixson estimates would have cost $1,500 to purchase.

Dixson has also been an Intuit ProAdvisor for six years, and consults with other CPA firms on subjects such as practice management, workflow processes, and technology.

"CPA programs help us to see and hear what is going on in our industry and to be able to compare what others are doing to what we are doing," she says. "We participate in these programs to see if, in effect, there is a new way of doing business."

Columbia, Mo.-based Gregg Gillaspy, CPA, has been a member of the QuickBooks ProAdvisor program since it started. He was contemplating becoming a member of MPAN because he thought there might be a wave of new customers coming to the firm asking about the new Small Business Accounting.

However, he noted that as of December, "We have not had one client or potential client even mention the name Microsoft Small Business Accounting, let alone ask us to consult with them on the program," says Gillaspy. "I know Microsoft offers a wide variety of software free with the program, which is appealing, but my understanding is that the software is only good for 12 months, which makes me wonder what Microsoft will demand at that point."

Similarly, SAP established the SAP CPA Advisor Program in 2004. The program is focused on the Business One reseller channel.

"We're coming at the CPA market from two angles," says Steve Ernest, director of North American Influencer programs for SAP America. "In looking at all the advisors to small business, CPAs are the most trusted, and small business owners turn to them for significant business decisions. SAP's relationship with large state societies and the AICPA helps us to demonstrate our interest in the community. And, secondly we want to create incentives for CPAs to join the program."

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